The Common Good

Radical Theology: The New 'White' Religion?

I’ve experienced some strange extremes lately. First, I attended – and spoke at – the Subverting the Norm conference in Springfield, Mo., where we took some time to consider how, if at all, so-called “radical theology” could exist within today’s religious systems. Then I got home and found my latest TIME Magazine, with a cover story titled “The Latino Reformation,” which reveals what most within Protestantism have known for some time: formerly Catholic Latino Christians are dramatically reshaping the face of the American Christian landscape.

TIME cover, The Latino Reformation
TIME cover, The Latino Reformation

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Interestingly, there is little-to-no overlap between these two groups – a point which was made clear to me by the fact that there were very few people of color in attendance at Subverting the Norm. One comment, from an African-American woman who was there, was that the very focus of the conference (on academic, esoteric questions of theology and philosophy) assumed the kind of privilege still dominated by middle-class white males. Put another way: while we’re busy navel-gazing and discussing the meaning of Nietzsche’s “death of God,” non-Anglo religious leaders were busy dealing with real-world problems right in front of them.

A fair critique, for sure. I’ve said before that philosophy is the preferred recreational sport of the intellectual bourgeois elite; she just put a finer point on it.

Then I read an article by Diana Butler Bass on the Huffington Post this morning that indicated such a bifurcation along both racial and ideological lines:

The first group, the unaffiliated, is largely uninterested in conventional religion, embracing humanism, non-specific forms of spirituality, or post-institutional forms of community. Their concern with old-fashioned religious questions is waning, as is their commitment to religious structures of the past. They are, by all reports, angry at the admixture of religion and politics that has roiled American life over the last three decades, and prefer more inclusive, less dogmatic but more pragmatic politics.

The second, those from other world religions and immigrant faiths, are more — rather than less — convinced of the importance of religion in society. Minority religions are surging into the public square building new worship spaces, wearing distinctive dress and pressing for rights in public schools. As is often the case in American history, immigrants become more committed to God and the church upon arrival here as traditional faith provides avenues of comfort and security in a new world.

The first group she describes largely describes the participants at subverting the norm; the second reaffirms that the fastest growing branch of the Christian faith today really could not care less what we were doing in Springfield. This is concerning on several levels to me. 

First, it indicates a growing racial divide within Christian circles which, once again, runs counter to the increasingly pluralistic dynamic of the larger culture around us. Second, though the Radical Theology/Postmodern Christian camp is asking compelling questions, at least for guys like me, we God nerds hardly even acknowledge the realities of the Church we’re talking about. Rather, we’re stuck on the old post-WWII community church model, which increasingly only exists in our minds. And the blade cuts both ways; ask 100 Latino pastors how much they care about Zizek or Derrida when they’re preparing for Sunday worship or meeting with a family in crisis. I’m guessing you’ll be met with more than a few shrugs or blank stares.

On the one hand, I understand the need for academic work to be “out front” to some degree, stretching the boundaries of the conversation, and trying at least to peer into the future at what may lie ahead. But the very makeup of the discussions and speakers at the event (myself included) points to the clear myopia of our perspective at the moment.

So what to do about this? Do we abandon the talks about postmodern Christianity and radical theology? I hope not, as it’s still very important in the grander scheme of our culture. But the conversation certainly needs to change. One suggestion I made to the conference planners is to give a more practical focus to future conversations. Personally, I would love to sit with a handful of thinkers and practitioners in the field of liberation theology and talk about how – if at all – these radical theology concepts dovetail with what they’re doing on a daily basis. And I would hope that, despite our propensity for geeking out on philosophy and abstract theological concepts, we’d take a step back and make room on the stage for those who are leading this new Christian Reformation to talk about what matters most to them and those who attend their churches.

Granted, we probably won’t find many ways to wed prophetic speaking in tongues with Pete Rollins’ Idolatry of God, but there are fundamental undercurrents that are part of the greater human experience into which we can tap together, hopefully with the aim of yielding something that matters to people outside of our own rhetorical and theological circles.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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